Adventure on your Doorstep

This article first appeared in Attain magazine Autumn 2015, p33. Co authored with Nicola Ainger

Schools increasingly offer pupils trips to the furthest corners of the world but, as Sam Moore, Head of Adventure Education at Dauntsey's School points out, you don't need to travel far for adventure.

PICK UP THE prospectus for any independent school and you will come across a vast array of ever more exotic and far-flung destinations for activity trips and sporting tours. You are not alone in thinking back to your own school days when a coach trip to the next county was exotic!

There has been significant growth in the range and scale of adventure activities being organised by schools. Parents are often expected to pick up the (not insubstantial) bill for these trips or help their children raise the necessary funds. They can feel pressurised to approve long-haul tours for younger children when they would prefer to introduce them to adventure with some shorter, less ambitious trips or share these experiences as a family. A friend of mine is currently grappling with a decision to send her thirteen year-old son on a school trip hiking in Australia. There is no question that these trips can be life-changing but perhaps we should stop for a moment to consider their objectives and the role they play in your child’s education.

For me, an adventure is an undertaking with an uncertain outcome that requires some combination of enthusiasm, resilience, organisation, learning, problem-solving and teamwork to achieve. It is novel in some way, either a new experience or a familiar experience taken to a new environment or carried out in a more challenging manner. Success is neither a given nor a requirement in adventure and the experience should allow the pupil to learn and develop as an individual, whether it is achieved or not. Learning from failure is just as important as learning to succeed.

As such, I believe that adventure education is an important part of a school’s provision. Business leaders today want the education system to better prepare young people for the world of work. Academic qualifications are certainly important but we all recognise that education is about much more than grades on a piece of paper. It’s about developing relevant life skills and characteristics, such as resilience, understanding risk, being flexible and willing to have a go, which we all need to have a successful, happy life. Certainly the Duke of Edinburgh was ahead of his time when he endorsed the County Badge Scheme and created his eponymous Award back in the 1950s.

The critical point is that many – if not all – of these objectives can be met on a school campus or at one of the numerous adventure locations around the United Kingdom. At my school, I have split our adventure education programme into two strands:

High Adventure takes the form of longer-haul trips, activities and experiences that involve relatively small numbers of pupils participating at a high level, normally with a high staff to pupil ratio. Typically this type of adventure will require time and dedication from the pupils and they will have to work to achieve specific skills and competence at a given activity which will allow them to access remote or challenging environments. The potential for misadventure is greater and care must be taken to ensure that participants are ready and willing to engage with it. Examples include the Devizes to Westminster canoe race, rock climbing in the Dolomites or a white water kayaking weekend.

Accessible Adventure takes the form of programmes where large numbers of pupils have short experiences that serve as an introduction to adventure and to various activities. These serve both as education experiences in their own right and as a gateway to High Adventure for those that enjoy them and find them rewarding. The potential for misadventure is much lower, hence the term accessible. Examples include kayaking in the school pool, camping in the school grounds, or building our own shelters and campfires.

Plenty of research has shown there is not necessarily a direct correlation between the ambition and scale of an activity and the impact it has on the individual. I recently witnessed a relatively quiet child really come into his own on a camp-out in our school grounds. It was the middle of the night and the group’s home-made shelter collapsed in windy conditions. He quickly took charge and rallied his group to rebuild it and everyone was soon safely under cover. Clearly there was no need to take him to the Atlas Mountains to gain some life skills from an adventure activity! Similarly, pupils participating in High Adventure activities do go through some life-changing experiences but those who sign up for these trips tend to be the more adventurous personalities and this can impact the scope for real behavioural change.

So, what should parents look for in a school’s adventure education curriculum? Schools should take advantage of their own campus and surrounding area for adventure education: a great outcome is not driven by large budgets or world-class facilities. Camping, hill walking and orienteering all cost little or nothing but can deliver a genuine adventure experience for all. Local community activities are important too and present a win-win for both parties and involvement can be sustained over a longer period of time. It is wonderful to travel to Africa to help in a school but there can be community activities on our own doorstep which are equally worthy. Overseas trips can be very appealing but it’s important to consider the objectives. Schools should think carefully about the role the destination plays in delivering benefits to pupils. Adding a cultural aspect to a rugby tour by arranging for pupils to stay with local families really adds a valuable new dimension.

Top of the list of concerns for parents is, of course, health and safety. All teachers need to balance risk against the benefits and outcomes. Experienced leaders can mean the difference between an exciting adventure and dangerous tedium on a trip. Crucially, I would urge parents to think about getting involved in adventure at home – it’s not just for term-time. We should all encourage our children to reconnect with the natural environment and to get outside, whatever the weather!

There are many resources and organisations available to help such as the National Trust and Woodland Trust. Technical gadgets are not necessarily the enemy. Using a smart phone and having a go at geocaching can take you to undiscovered places in your own neighbourhood; planning a walking route on-line and sending regular messages via social media with progress reports and photos is a great way to engage all members of the family. There are plenty of ways in which technology can enhance rather than detract from the adventure experience.

Adventure education is here to stay and some schools will continue to see it as a means of differentiation. I believe passionately that it plays a vital role in preparing children for life, never more so than today’s everchanging and increasingly risk-free world. But I am equally passionate about the need for a discerning approach to developing an adventure education curriculum. It really isn’t all about how far you travel and discovering the latest 'hot' destination. If you think back to your own school days, I bet some of the most memorable adventures weren’t so far from home.